Colorado is nature's playground. The scenery here is nothing short of stunning - some of the best in the United States. This inland state, between Utah and Kansas, is the home of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River and thousands of square miles of park, forest and protected land. For the skier, there are the world-class resorts of Breckenridge and Aspen, plus many smaller ski towns with historic, pioneer districts. For the summer visitor, there are warm, sunny days, lakes, wildlife and rivers galore. For the city lovers, there are Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. This is the high life: Colorado being the only state to lie entirely over a kilometre above sea level. Here's our top ten places to visit:
1. Mesa Verde National Park
UNESCO have recognised Mesa Verde as a World Heritage Site, preserving as it does some of the most important archaeological sites in North America - almost 5,000 of them. Most impressive are the cave dwellings that were occupied in the 13th century. Some 600 unique homes were created in the sandstone canyon cliff walls by the Anasazi or Puebloan people here, and remain wonderfully intact. The best known and most visited is the Cliff Palace, which is probably the largest in North America with over 200 rooms. This is over 700 years old. The park is accessed south from Highway 160, between Cortez and Durango. Get your climbing boots on, because its quite a hike up to these totally unique cliff dwellings, but ever so worth it. The park is open every day of the year.
2. Garden of the Gods Park
If Salvador Dali had designed a natural landscape, it would have been the Garden of the Gods Park. It is quite simply surreal. Rock formations of sandstone ranging from pink to deep maroon thrust up in utterly bizarre configurations, hoodoos, hogbacks, arches and stacks - and all just six miles out of the heart of Colorado Springs. Hike on easy trails, cycle, hunt for wildlife and just enjoy the views, as the rocks change colour with the movement of the sun. Gaze up at Pike's Peak and the Rocky Mountains. For those who want to take things easy, there is a driving trail. For the daredevils, there is superb climbing. The trails are wheelchair accessible and admission is absolutely free.
3. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Explore the tallest sand dunes in North America: climb them, sit atop and boggle at the views, then slide and sledge down them at this amazing National Park near Alamosa. Some of these inland dunes, formed around half a million years ago, rise over 750 feet! In addition there are constantly moving streams, alpine tundra landscapes, lakes, grasslands and forest. Some of the park's mountains top 3,900 metres: so this really is a park that encompasses all. Definitely go for a dip in Medano Creek when you are there ... though incredibly shallow and safe, the sands are still shifting so quickly and frequently that waves - up to a foot high - are created for you to play in! It's like Colorado's own inland beach. Reach this incredible park 35 miles to the north east of Alamosa, using Highways 160 then 150 when coming from the south. The park is open to visitors 24/7, all year round and costs just $3 ... free for kids.
4. Denver Zoo
Denver is Colorado's biggest city, and well worth a visit. And not to be missed is its zoo, especially if you are coming with the kids. This is one of the most popular zoos in the USA and Colorado's most visited attraction, with over 4,000 animals from 700 different species. It's home to all the 'biggies', including elephants, siberian tigers, breeding polar bears, lemurs, rhinos, gorillas, leopards and more. The zoo has a very successful breeding program and a great conservation record. It's only a five minute drive from downtown and is open every single day of the year. Its not wonder over one and a half million people come here! It boasts the only artistic rhino in the world - Mshindi - who likes to paint with a brush and whose 'works' are on display.
5. Hanging Lake
Just north of the Great Sand Dunes, high in the mountains, is the utterly beautiful Hanging Lake. Getting here involves a bit of a trek up along the creek, but it is so worth the aching legs and 1,000 foot ascent. This crystal clear, turquoise lake in Glenwood Canyon is fed by gentle falls and appears to hang from the cliffs. This is a fragile, sensitive environment so there's no swimming or fishing here, and visitors must stick to the boardwalks. But as hikes go, this is right up there with the best and the reward is an incredible vista of a peaceful, unique mountain lake. Get there by driving 22 miles west from Eagle on route 70, exiting at Glenwood Canyon. Not to be missed, this is another of Colorado's free attractions.
6. Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountains ARE Colorado, as synonymous with the state as the river and springs. Over 415 square miles are designated national park, with more than sixty peaks over 12,000 feet into the skies. There are over 300 miles of trails here, from gentle strolls to full-on ascents to Long Peak at 14,259 with its vast summit. The alpine environment has pristine lakes, creeks and falls, wildflowers and wildlife galore. Once again, it's open 24 hours a day, 365 days every year and has seven different visitors centres to help orientate you and give information, ranger-guided walks and education about this wilderness. There are some great scenic byways, too, allowing you to drive up to 12,000 feet about sea level on historic roads. The Trail Ridge Road is definitely worth driving, gently rising as it meanders above the tree line on a 48 mile loop. It was built in the 1930s and takes you up over 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes. The park starts just two hours from Denver on US.34.
7. Colorado State Capitol
Come down from the top of the world to one of the grandest state capitols, on East Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver. With more than a nod to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, Colorado's version was built in the 1890s from pure white granite and boasts fantastic stained glass windows, a stunning rotunda and a glimpse into the political history and running of the state. It's an opulent testament to the Gold Rush days. Take a free tour on weekdays through sweeping staircases, past great paintings, the senate, house of representatives, Mr Brown's attic and newly opened areas that had previously been out of bounds.
As ski resorts go, Aspen is world class ... long a playground for the rich and famous. Southeast of Glenwood Springs on Highway 82, under 200 miles from Denver, find some of the best snow, apres ski and resort living in the States and the world. High up in the Rocky Mountains, Aspen has managed to retain its charm and historic downtown while offering superb facilities and luxury accommodation and dining. The four major mountains, with powder snow and stunning views, include the Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Ajax. It needs no more billing: Aspen is the pinnacle for winter sports.
9. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Discover the steepest cliffs and oldest rocks in the whole of the continent in this stunning canyon, just east of Montrose. Here, 2000 foot canyon sides drop vertically down to the Gunnison River. There are several trails from one to three miles, from easy to strenuous and you can camp here. You'll be rewarded with dizzying views down to the river, and of the Painted Wall - Colorado's highest cliff. Or climb the sheer vertical faces. Just watch out for the bears, who do like your snacks!
10. Denver Art Museum
The north building itself is an architectural icon, designed by Ponti and opened in the early 1970s. In 2006 the museum grew further with the opening of the 350,000 square foot Frederic C. Hamilton Building. In the north building, seven storeys are lined with silver-grey, reflective tiles and hold no less than 70,000 individual pieces of art and sculpture. This is the biggest gallery between the coast and Chicago, and has won multiple awards. There are permanent exhibitions of Spanish Colonial, African, pre-Colombian, Asian, European, American Indian and contemporary American, photography and western American art. Note, closed on Mondays.
From man's invention and achievement to nature's most stunning creations, Colorado has it all - in spades. Come to enjoy the superb snows in the mountains or the sublime summers in the valleys below and take it all in. Much of the natural beauty is completely free of charge and highly accessible, so for an outdoor, sightseeing family trip, Colorado is a must.
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